After five years of organizing, nurses at Emanuel Hospital have finally begun circulating a petition to bring union membership to a vote amongst their ranks.
The United Nurses of Legacy, in conjunction with the Oregon Federation of Nurse and Health Professionals, aims to unionize all 3,000 nurses within Legacy Emanuel's five-hospital chain.
Emanuel is the last hospital system in the state where nurses are not unionized, and it's one of the biggest.
"Once we get a majority of signatures, the petition is taken to the National Labor Relations Board to verify the signatures, and then its taken to a vote at all five hospitals," said Inger McDowell, union organizer at United Nurses of Legacy. "Once the vote is successful, the nurses sit down and write a contract and begin negotiations."
In the meantime, nurses from Legacy last week held a legislative forum to discuss the lack of hospital staff in dealing with patients, and national legislation aimed at establishing minimum staffing requirements for hospitals.
It's the second large-scale hearing the group has held in their ongoing effort to establish mandatory safety ratios for staff and patients in Oregon.
"We've built a lot of support among business leaders and community leaders to persuade legislators to do the right thing," McDowell said.
"I think the important thing is that nurses are getting concerned about staffing," she said. "In Oregon, HB 2800 was introduced in the state legislature three years ago to talk about staffing ratios around the state, but it only affects nurses in unions."
In Congress, H.R. 2123 – also known as the "Nurse Staffing Standards for Patient Safety and Quality Care Act of 2007" — was introduced one year ago to prevent hospitals from deliberately under-staffing wards to boost profits.
Around the nation, studies have shown that the number of patient deaths due to preventable causes is on the rise. Nurse advocates argue the cause is understaffing – which they say is not an issue at unionized hospitals, where nurses have more of a voice in their working conditions.
Nurse-to-patient ratios vary from hospital to hospital, and from unit to unit, McDowell says. In wards with more acute patients, such as the Trauma Recovery Acute Care Unit, more nurses are needed to care for fewer patients who, in turn, require more attention for their condition.
Union organizers say an ideal nurse to patient ratio on a medical/surgical floor is four patients for every one nurse; currently the Legacy Emanuel nurses have anywhere from five to six patients.
Certified Nursing Assistants are also a key component of staffing, particularly in "step-down units" – wards that fall, in the difficulty of care, somewhere between an in Intensive Care Unit and medical-surgical care units.
The union says step-down units are now operating with one CNA for every 36 patients, but nurses argue they should have at least three CNAs for every 36 patients.
McDowell stresses that every ward is different, and every hospital is different, so the necessary number of staff can vary – but nevertheless, to ensure the best possible patient care, there should be standards set to prevent understaffing.
She says that, as a Black woman who lives in Northeast Portland, she feels strongly that Emanuel should ensure patient safety because it serves the majority of African Americans from the area – and because African Americans have sacrificed so much in the creation of Legacy Emanuel.
Back in the 1960s, the old Williams Street business district was torn down to make room for the facility, striking a painful blow to Black families and businesses.
"People moved out of the community, out of their own homes so it could expand," McDowell says. "Emanuel has a special responsibility to Northeast Portland."
For more information go to www.unitednursesoflegacy.org.